Education minister apologizes to teachers for sudden red-phase rule change
Edmundston region went into a higher alert phase as of midnight Monday
The New Brunswick Teachers' Federation says it does not support keeping schools open during the red phase after new rules took teachers and district by surprise.
The province did not consult teachers before changing the rules, said federation co-president Rick Cuming.
"We've been directed to prepare for a transition to at home learning if red occurs. And that's been the plan for months, until yesterday," he said in an interview.
Education Minister Dominic Cardy and Dr, Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health, announced a record 36 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, including 24 in the Edmundston and Grand Falls region, or Zone 4. The region has been moved back to the red phase of recovery from the orange phase, where the other health zones still are.
At the same news conference, Cardy said schools in Zone 4 would stay open under new phase-red guidelines. The guidelines previously said if a zone moved to the red phase, all non-essential businesses and schools must close.
In an interview Monday, Cardy said the possibility of different red-phase rules were discussed for months, and staff were trying to finalize and roll them out "in the near future," but the spike in cases caused them to be rolled out more suddenly.
Cardy apologized to teachers for not communicating the change earlier but said he could not delay following Public Health recommendations.
"I still want to extend my apologies for not having been able to communicate this earlier," he said.
"I was left with a recommendation from Public Health and was left with the choice of either following that or bluntly politicizing the decision, and choosing to lighten the load on me and my office by sticking with a plan Public Health no longer said reflected the best science," he said.
Cuming said the federation, which represents both anglophone and francophone teachers, plans to address its concerns with Cardy, including asking how suddenly changing the rules could help "foster a climate of stability," and how students, teachers and staff will be kept safe.
Cardy said students will be safe at school, even during phase red, as there will be daily screening of staff and people showing one symptom will be asked to stay home.
Cuming said the one-symptom rule could cause a staffing issue.
"We don't understand how we're going to be able to have the human resources to meet the criteria of having no symptoms in a red zone and be able to safely run schools," he said.
Cardy said he made the decision to change the red-phase rules based on Public Health recommendations. He said the way schools have been run during the pandemic makes it so they're "one of the safest places," for students.
He said the way schools have been run since they reopened has been "very effective" at keeping COVID-19 at bay.
The virus was recently detected in 14 schools and six early childhood learning facilities.
Francophone North-West School District superintendent Luc Caron held a media conference Monday afternoon supporting the government's decision.
"[If] schools are open that means schools are safe and that is Public Health's message that they're sending out," he said.
"We will continue to do our best to give the kids the best education, best quality of service possible."
Caron said the new rules came as a surprise to the district as well. He said staff have been working on red-phase plans for months, but had to pivot when they learned that they will remain open in red.
Caron said if parents want to keep their kids at home because they don't feel safe, they are free to do that. But if they do, "they become the teacher."
He said he hopes parents will understand the district is keeping the students and staff safe by following Public Health guidelines of cleaning and masking. He said the district will step up active screening of school personnel, and screen employees on a daily basis.
Extracurricular activities will be cancelled, and if employees or students experience only one symptom they are asked to stay home and get tested, he said.
"We encourage our parents to take a look on our health measures in place and I hope they realize that means we are strict and our measures are safe," he said. "We would invite them to bring back their kids to school."
With files from Harry Forestell